By Ken Coates and Carin Holroyd, July 31, 2023
Climate change is altering our world, as witnessed by relentless heat waves, wildfires, floods, rising oceans, retreating Arctic ice, changes to our flora and fauna.
Yet in a bizarre twist, these dire circumstances could turn Canada — with its entrenched reputation as the Great White North — into a winter tourism destination.
For centuries, winter warmth has been an irresistible siren for travellers. Today more than 800,000 Canadians head south each year to resorts or condos in locales from Cuba to Costa Rica, Maui to Jamaica.
But, as Earth changes faster and more dramatically than even many scientists predicted, global vacation priorities are evolving. This summer European tourism is down, and those who go are spending more time than planned in hotel rooms or cruise ship staterooms. Arizona’s record heat is taxing air conditioners and water supplies, making fast-growing cities like Phoenix places to avoid. Daily Mediterranean temperatures constantly top 40 degrees. These conditions make visiting non-air-conditioned ancient ruins — or just heading to a beach or pool — less appealing.
And yet, we still travel.
North American airline numbers are back to pre-pandemic levels. It’s probably inevitable that fall and winter will overtake summer as the peak travel season, and “hot spots” that become too hot will lose customers to more moderate, comfortable climates.
This search for cool is not new. In the era before air conditioning, wealthy Americans fled the suffocating heat of Washington or New York for northern New York state, Ontario cottage country or the New Brunswick seaside. Cool nights and enjoyable sunshine were lovely alternatives to the stifling urban heat of the eastern seaboard.
Today, our warming climate is changing tourism. Arctic cruises are surging, Greenland’s coast is an increasingly popular destination. Northern lights tourism is popular across Scandinavia, Alaska and the Northwest Territories — Yellowknife has become a big destination. Rovaniemi, Finland, pulled a marketing coup by declaring itself the real home of Santa Claus (and not the Canadian Arctic, as Canadians know to be true), creating a successful winter tourism industry in the process.
Canada has not embraced winter and fall travel with the same zeal as the Scandinavians. Our tourism infrastructure in the middle and far north needs considerable attention. Our ski resorts, consistently ranked with the best in the world, do reasonably well, but Canada’s surging urban populations are generally ill-connected to the outdoors. We need more year-round resorts like Ontario’s Blue Mountain, or Elk Ridge, Saskatchewan, or British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, to name just a few.
Scandinavia, Iceland and Greenland have stolen a march on Canada. Greenland is completing two international airports, making the massive ice-covered island accessible from North America and Europe. Travellers typically spend a few sunny summer days kayaking among the icebergs in Disko Bay, Greenland, or enjoy the sunlit landscapes in Svalbard, Norway. Scandinavia traditionally has more winter tourism options than Canada, giving them a leg up in the current shift toward cool tourism.
Yet, Canada has so much to offer. Ice-fishing, Indigenous tourist experiences, dog sledding and northern lights viewing could be major attractions — in Saskatchewan alone. The Yukon’s many winter attractions include the Haines Junction area, one of the world’s most beautiful habitats. Northern New Brunswick offers unrivalled snowmobiling conditions. Our Arctic has otherworldly features and compelling Indigenous communities. (Try buying a ticket to visit Iqaluit or Cambridge Bay in Nunavut and you will see why few travellers go north in Canada. It’s the cost!)
The Highway 16 corridor from Edmonton to Prince Rupert, B.C. is one of North America’s most attractive fall and winter environments. Fall colour tours in the Maritimes — particularly along that underdeveloped gem, the St. John River Valley — are outstanding. From Labrador to B.C., fall and winter across the mid-North offers skiing, fishing, wilderness adventures, canoeing, photography, hiking, dogsledding, and more.
In recent years past, the commercial pursuit of “cool” often meant emulating Japanese anime or Korean K-Pop. But now, with surging temperatures and the reordering of global tourism, Canada’s climatic coolness may be one of the country’s unbeatable advantages.
Ken Coates is a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute and professor of Indigenous Governance at Yukon University; Carin Holroyd is professor of political studies at the University of Saskatchewan.